While in recent years policymakers have made strides in simplifying the process by which students apply for financial aid, many still face obstacles in obtaining that aid due to the complicated nature of financial aid verification. That’s why the financial aid office at the University of Utah decided to reach out to those students to help walk them through the process by hosting a series of verification open houses.
After learning more about exactly how many students never complete the verification process—including those on their own campus—the financial aid office decided it was time to take action to ensure students have the help they need to obtain their financial aid, according to Brenda Burke, executive director of the university’s Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid.
Earlier this month, the office reached out to students through a number of efforts, including teaming up with the admissions office to speak with students at enrollment events, sending targeted emails to students who had started but not completed the verification process, conducting outreach through social media, extending office hours specifically for students and families who needed help with verification, and hosting verification events on campus.
“The hardest part was thinking outside the box to even think of the idea to have one,” Burke said. “When you get caught up in the financial aid and the cycle of what you have to do and when, it’s hard to think outside the box to tell the students that we are here to help.”
According to data from the Department of Education, slightly more than half of students eligible for the Pell Grant were selected for verification in 2015-16. The National College Access Network (NCAN) has estimated that more than 1 in 5 low-income students selected for verification will experience “verification melt” and never complete the process.
Marc Gangwer, assistant director of operations for the office, said that after learning about those statistics, he thought the numbers were “dismal” and tasked the financial aid counselors and advisors to come up with ideas to help lessen the melt.
Around the same time, financial aid counselors were going to local high schools to conduct FAFSA nights, according to James Farnsworth, an aid counselor at the university.
“I thought, ‘Well, what if we did the same thing, but for verification?’” Farnsworth said. “If the FAFSA is a daunting thing, then verification has to be a daunting thing. If we as experts in the field are able to open up our house, and get them excited about it all, we’re building that yield and helping them overcome that melt process.”
Burke said that what was particularly helpful was being able to reach out to the students who they knew needed help, after identifying which students had outstanding items to submit to complete the verification process. The aid office reached out to those students to let them know that they could also come in to get help after hours on a Friday, or during hours added on a Saturday morning to help accommodate students who might have work conflicts.
Farnsworth said being able to conduct outreach events in common places on campus—like the library—made a difference in reaching students “in their own environment.”
“Financial aid is one of those things that it’s the unsung hero of a college education. It’s something a lot of students need, and when it works great and they don’t get selected for verification, they love the process,” he said. “But when they get selected for it, its frightening, it’s daunting, they don’t know what it is.”
When financial aid offices are able to seek out those students and go to them, he said, “it’s showing the students we care and we want the best for them and we are here to help them, rather than it being a scary, frightening” experience.
Our members are constantly going above and beyond to help their students succeed in higher education. NASFAA's Member Spotlight stories feature initiatives that our members have pursued that exceed the traditional scope of responsibilities of a financial aid office. If your university or financial aid office has taken on a project or unique efforts to help students, please reach out to us at [email protected].
Publication Date: 3/21/2019